Hansen and Jones try subtle resets for Rugby World Cup pressure game – The Guardian,

Hansen and Jones try subtle resets for Rugby World Cup pressure game – The Guardian,

The first dusting of snow covered the plum pudding summit of Mount Fuji this week, some 22 days later than it normally arrives. It is almost as if the Japanese climate is reflecting the changing pattern of a tournament where keeping cool heads is increasingly vital. For anyone wishing to win the 2019Rugby World Cup, the time to start peaking is now.

Steve Hansen, who knows a little about winning World Cups, sees this week as the tournament’s pivotal period. Even top sides, he believes, can be at their most vulnerable when they have just won well and cruised into the last four. “Sometimes people come off the euphoria of the quarter-final and start looking ahead at the final,” said Hansen. “When you start looking beyond where you’re actually at, your mind’s not where your feet are and you’re vulnerable.”

Which is among the reasons why New Zealand and England have both re-set themselves selectorially this week. Showing the opposition a different picture and picking the right gameplan are both crucial but so is removing any sense of inevitable victory. Eddie Jones used a boxing analogy, perhaps to reinforce the need for total vigilance. “It’s going to be a great contest, isn’t it?” Said the head coach, who has been awaiting this semi-final bout for years. “Two heavyweights, one dressed in black, one dressed in white. You couldn’t think of a better scenario. ”

The respective trainers are certainly earning their corn. While the redeployment of Scott Barrett in the All Blacks back row andGeorge Ford’s return at fly-half for Englandmay appear straightforward tactical calls, designed to help influence the lineout and kicking duels respectively, there are other considerations at work.

Eddie Jones: work off the ball will be ‘massively important’ in semi-final on Saturday – video

Barrett, unsurprisingly given the household from which he hails, also has a fine pair of hands and is comfortable playing an offloading game. New Zealand, in other words, have an extra piano shifter but still possess the ability to make England dance to their all-court tune.

In Ford’s case, England are also recalling an in-form player with excellent spatial awareness who can help counter the All Blacks ’deft kicking game. Jones believes work-rate off the ball is even more important against New Zealand and will hope the Leicester No 10 can help to defuse the footballing threat posed by Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett.

Ford is also a useful man to have on your side if you potentially require 25 points or more to win a World Cup semi-final. It may sound self-evident but to beat the All Blacks with multiple attacking threats you need to be able, at some stage, to create something yourself.

The bench also appears to have been carefully chosen. If it is close heading into the last quarter, as is more than likely, England have opted to finish with technically excellent, tough forwards in George Kruis, Joe Marler and Mark Wilson who will never, ever give up. Jones, from vast experience, knows only a concerted 80 – minute effort will do. “One thing about playing New Zealand is that you have to be alive all the time. They are always in the game, always looking for opportunities. Our players are equipped for that and ready to go. ”

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There is just one snag: New Zealand have rarely sounded as switched on before a big game as they have this week. Behind Hansen’s dust-dry, laconic exterior lurks a seriously smart operator and his eight years as All Blacks head coach have also taught him how to amuse a room full of journalists keen to hear what he thought of Jones’s mischievous pre-match comments on Tuesday. Not only did Hansen smash the spy-in-the-flats nonsense to all parts – “the best clickbait in the world” but he also delivered a few stealthy wicket-taking balls of his own, particularly on the issue of pressure and how England , despite Jones’s clever deflections, may or may not cope with it.

Take the following, for example: “We know we’re under pressure, we don’t need Eddie to tell us that. What he needs to work out is this: what are England going to do about the pressure they’re under? To say they’ve got nothing to lose… Eddie doesn’t believe that either. ”Along with his team, Hansen has the ability to turn defense into instant attack, complete with a wry punchline or two. Had Jones, someone asked, put a smiley emoji on the end of the text message he sent Hansen this week? “He’s not a smiley face man,” replied Hansen, deadpan.

The All Blacks captain, Kieran Read, was also impressive, making clear his players “cannot just roll into” this weekend after pulverising Ireland. The hooker, Codie Taylor, will be winning his 50 th cap – as willEngland’s Billy Vunipola– but Hansen believes there is a bigger picture involved beyond result-driven imperatives and personal milestones.

“Let’s hope the game can live up to the hype because, if it does, we will be sending a message around the world – ‘wow, what a wonderful game’ – to rugby lovers and people seeing it for the first time. There’s an important side-outcome about who will win it but, ultimately, it won’t define the All Blacks and I’m sure it won’t define England either. ”

He is right in theory: there is far more to life than a game of rugby. For every player awaiting Saturday’s title eliminator, however, it does not currently feel that way.

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